Standing above the entranceway, I read the letter. He wrote about the two of us. Basically he said in his own words what I had been thinking in mine.
I replied that night. Doesn’t matter what, also doesn’t matter how eloquently, though at the time I didn’t have any particular trouble with German. In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, “officially” I spent a year in Germany. I studied literature and philosophy at a university in Bavaria, or rather if I think about it a little, I studied something entirely different.
Since the post office, or rather one of my primary workplaces is quite close to my apartment, I decided to post the letter first thing the next morning, before teaching. In the entranceway I ran into old man Szamos. For some reason I regularly run into him in the entranceway, and the two of us usually chat too. Since I was in a hurry, this time I just asked him how they were, he and his wife, to which he replied, we are well, thanks. Szamos is ninety years old, he has been living with only one lung for forty years, “volume, who gives a fuck,” to which I once replied, yes Mr. Szamos, you are quite right. Sometimes we chat about Mrs. Szamos, who is eighty, but she is always suffering from some malady or another. Or rather not always, cause on this occasion everything seemed to be fine. Sometimes I would run into both of them. Last time, for instance, standing in front of the thieves’ corner building I saw them walking hand in hand down Király street. You don’t often see anything that beautiful in Budapest.
As I walked down Király street towards the post office suddenly I heard the man with the loden jacket behind me. I didn’t even need to look back, I knew it was him. He said, word for word, “those fucked up johnny boys from the shit filled towns, they think that the great powers won’t tolerate any kind of collusion. The great powers, pffft! They won’t tolerate, pffft! Cause of course it’s not them, pffft! Let ‘em think it! Gang of pigs, thinking about nothing but fried rinds all day. But they’re coming, they’ll see, they’re coming, they’re coming, I’m telling you, whether trains or something else, and they’ll put ‘em up, oh they’ll be surprised! And if not, then something else will come, something else. It’s all right there, plain to see, everything right before their very eyes, but fools, folks, I’m telling you, they don’t hiss and you don’t hiss, but they’ll put you on the trains and then it’s over, done, democracy gangsters! Or they won’t cause by then there won’t even be any trains left. The wheels will creak and squeak and squeak and creak. They don’t care about great power politics, and why not, why not collusion, if that’s what fits?! I’m telling you, that’s what’s coming, but actually it’s already here! I see what’s gonna come of it, see and hear, fools, they think they’ll be able to escape, but they won’t, and won’t they be surprised!”
I got it all done in time.
From then on we corresponded regularly. It would take far too long for me to recount all the things we wrote to each other about, and we also wrote about many things I wouldn’t mention even if I did have time and space, not that they were terribly unusual things or things to be kept secret. Just that it’s kind of hard to talk about why you don’t want to talk about certain things, since you’re not trying to avoid looking yourself square in the eye, not at all, and you’re not frightened by your own feelings, you are just afraid to talk about things that could be misunderstood, since there’s always a chance that they will be, just as there is always a chance, if you decide to go ahead anyway, that all of a sudden you’ll find yourself recounting something that you didn’t really want to confess even to yourself, and not because you’re too cowardly to do so; you don’t want to mention it simply because you’re afraid of everything that might come with it, even if in the end you don’t even know much about it, cause the whole thing is more like a memory, a memory about which at first you think that you have long known it well, but then you realize that even though you knew it, still, it’s a memory for which there is actually no real foundation, no foundation that would hold it up, as you would have wanted.
Then one day he stopped sending letters. He stopped because they installed a phone in my place. It was one of the days soon after spring break, I remember well, cause teaching had just begun again in the schools where I worked, and after not having done so for a long time I began again to follow the news in the newspapers. He covered most of the expenses. A few weeks earlier he had written that I shouldn’t worry, it was fair, sometimes this was the only way to make up for the injustices of life, which is a joke anyway, I shouldn’t concern myself with it, besides in the end he’ll get the most out of it.
In the end what had begun in Bad Heim continued, just that now when we spoke I sat in my own armchair or possibly on the bed or the kitchen stool, but if I wanted I could also squat or amble or just look out the window of my room, from which I can see old man Szamos’ apartment, the tower of the Church of Saint Theresa, or the side-wing of the building of the Budapest Talmud Society, which is used by the Lubavitch Hassidic Jews. True, in order to see the latter I have to open the window and lean out, which I often did at the time, since I wanted to see the walls from above, fifteen meters is still fifteen meters, and of course I looked at the walls from below as well, since on the way home or on the way to work for that matter I regularly looked not only at the façade of the Sasz Chevra, i.e. the Society, not just the synagogue in the inner courtyard, but also the little interior building perpendicular to the synagogue, because as it so happens it interested me the most, this side-wing, in the rooms of which at one time not Lubavitch Hassidic Jews had studied and prayed, but rather the rabbis and pupils of the Sasz Chevra, who at one time had been held in high esteem by the people of the city because they had dealt with the dead, a vocation that involved a great deal, not just observation of the various rituals and rules, but a lot of other things too, about which of course I never spoke with Michael, because we spoke of other things in the two or three hours a week that we had, including things that we thought we had brought to a close in our correspondence, but which apparently for some reason cannot be brought to a close, cause they kept coming up again and again, things like the clinic too.
(translated by Thomas Cooper)
Excerpts from the synopsis, blurb, and reviews of the Hungarian edition
A forty-year old man from Budapest, who recently taught as a university instructor, has a complete psychological and existential breakdown from one day to the next. A German waiter, who lives in Bavaria and suffers acute insomnia, commits suicide. A Hungarian aristocrat, a member of the Esterházy family, who is tinsmith, taxi driver, cleaning lady, and the guardian angel of one of the most important figures of 20th century Hungarian literature at the same time. The reconstruction of events that took place in a restaurant in Geneva, events that are closely intertwined with the massacres in Bosnia…
The story takes place in present-day Budapest, close to Andrássy Avenue, the Broadway of Pest, in the neighborhood of the city that once was the Jewish ghetto. Images of the persecution of the Jews of Budapest during the Second World War come to life, a counterpoint sometimes to the terrible events of the wars in Yugoslavia, sometimes to the absurdities of the apartheid system of Johannesburg, from a German perspective.
The story progresses from secret to secret, from one state of consciousness to another, driven by the dynamics of conundrum and enigma, for the protagonist who recounts the tale speaks from a state of a shaken or shattered consciousness.
Personal fate, history, and the everyday life of an apartment block in Budapest intertwine in this novel. The point of intersection is a metaphysical way of seeing things. As the unfathomably depressing natural history unravels (and the word depressing does not occur once in the text, rather we find a circumscription of the state in which we do not know what we are suffering of), we realize that our personal fate is concretely tied to the barely known history of our immediate surroundings (an apartment block in the one-time Jewish ghetto), the unexamined past of our broader world (Hungary, the Second World War, the Holocaust, Stalinism), and even the ethnic cleansing taking place in the neighboring countries, which we think doesn’t touch us. Shattered consciousness unveils these points of intersection, as if perhaps only the broken self that has lost everything were capable of revealing the inscrutably complex structure of our lives (personal crisis, the suicide of a close friend, the past brought to life, social cataclysms, the possible danger of an approaching war, etc.).
The novel depicts what has been and what is, all that surrounded and surrounds us, from the deepest, most internal spaces of an individual. It speaks from the deepest levels of conscience. In this sense, Other Death dispenses justice on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of (Jewish) Hungarians dragged off in train cars and the tortured victims of the communist nightmare, while also delicately touching on the responsibility born by the Hungarian political elite, which was unable to deal with the possibilities offered by the change of regimes.
The manner of remembrance resembles assembling a puzzle according to the peculiar logic of a mind or consciousness that is continuously redefining itself. A Volkswagen camper, a gang, a psychiatrist, alcohol, a window, a parking lot in a little town in Switzerland (Versoix), a slaughter house, a ballet school, medications, a trash collector in front of the Sport swimming pool on Margaret Island – these are the handholds on which various explanations are built.
The most important of the enigmas that enwrap the novel begins to emerge in the first third. What happened to the narrator/protagonist? What happened to him that has left him almost entirely unable to remember any of what happened to him on his most recent trip to Geneva? A great deal is left to the reader so surmise. The use of a sort of detective-story recounting of information, however, helps: we find ourselves faced with several “suspects,” several possible explanations regarding what happened in Geneva: a mysterious accident? Drunken loss of consciousness? Temporary insanity? Permanent psychological strain? Nervous breakdown? Or something entirely different?
In the second part of the novel the reader gradually comes to realize the perspective from which the narrator is recounting the tale. For some time one thinks first and foremost of a sanatorium (at the beginning of the novel events are recounted that took place much later, with an odd assortment of characters, Blue-Hair, the Countess, Little Birdie, etc., and one thinks one is in a madhouse). Then things begin to become more clear: not only does the web of the author’s deliberate deceptions become visible, the narrator’s mind clears, arriving at an almost ethereal clarity. This is the result of a decade of concentrated work on his part (the second part of the novel depicts this period), not in a madhouse, as gradually becomes evident, but rather in a noted exhibition space in Budapest, where the narrator works as a guard (after his nervous breakdown this was the only place where he could find employment and where in the end he was able to work, the disorders of his mind – including an illness that will lead eventually to complete idiocy – notwithstanding. From here he rebuilds himself, and over the course of the last four years his novel, the story of a psychological and existential collapse the composition of which in the end is evidence of recovery.
The manner of remembrance changes over the course of the writing of the novel. The narrator/protagonist comes to registers of the mind where fundamental relations unfold and can be unfolded. It is thus that we come to know the cause of his nervous breakdown abroad (the massacre in Srebrenica), and we suddenly find ourselves in the long-forgotten world of childhood memories (a child’s sacrifice for civilians murdered or crippled in the Second World War), while we also begin to see the most hidden points of interconnection of a person’s individual fate.
Ferenc Barnás’ novel is an ambitious attempt to present the hidden intertwinings of history and the fate of an individual.
“W. G. Seebald, Thomas Bernhard, Christoph Ransmayr are relatives of this art. Of course this is a different art. But there is no difference in standard.” Élet és Irodalom
“Other Death is not simply a novel about a psychological breakdown, but is also a novel of the history of the recent past.” Kalligram Literary Journal
“It is one of those rare works that is capable, like a kind of stop-gap, of speaking at a high level of the actual present moment, in a distinctive voice, with a distinctive manner of seeing, and with new perspectives.” Litera
“Barnás’ novel renders perceptible a more general state when the hero cannot control his own state, beyond the daily routine, when some troubling internal change is taking place in side him, a change over which he has little grasp, and which he can neither direct nor even name. …. A book without hopes, but precise and beautiful.” Magyar Narancs
“Ferenc Barnás’ novel is the most profound, precise, and plausible novel of today’s Budapest (and also possibly today’s Hungarian and Central Eastern Europe). At the same time it is a crucial constat of what has become of our lives.” Danyi Zoltán füzete
“What really makes Barnás’ work deserving of attention is his ability to bring neurosis tending to mania to the surface as a linguistic and rhetorical manner of functioning.” Műút
“Ferenc Barnás’s most recent novel belongs to those rare books which depict our times in an original voice and with an individual vision.”Hungarian Literature Online